In early June 2011, some three months into the uprising against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Syrian government forces began preparing for a large-scale assault on Jisr al-Shughour, a rebellious border town sixty-five miles southwest of Aleppo. The events that led to this operation are a matter of some dispute. Residents of the town said that Assad’s security forces shot and killed an unarmed man during a protest after Friday prayers. At his funeral the next day, thousands of mourners marched to a post office where security forces were gathered.
According to eyewitnesses, government snipers on top of the building began shooting at the crowd, while more troops arrived to back them up. But numerous accounts also describe soldiers defecting and joining with the mourners, a number of whom had brought guns, to attack the regime forces; Syrian state media later claimed that 120 soldiers had been massacred by “armed gangs.”
What is certain is that an exceptionally violent confrontation took place. As the regime sent reinforcements to retake control, most of the town’s 44,000 inhabitants and many from the surrounding area fled. “They were burning houses and fields and killing animals. They started shooting. And killed two families,” a woman who called herself Lajia told us when, reporting for a public radio story, we met her in a tiny Turkish village two weeks later. With her six children, then aged six to seventeen, she had escaped from her farm near Jisr al-Shughour across the border to Turkey, where she was staying with relatives. “Villages were increasingly empty from around forty kilometers away,” a United Nations official reported after a fact-finding mission later that month. “Jisr al-Shughour itself was almost deserted.” Like Lajia and her family, much of the population had crossed into Turkey’s Hatay province—the first refugees in a conflict that has since produced more than two million of them.
In more than one way, what happened in Jisr al-Shughour is unusually revealing about the course of Syria’s civil war: it was the first well-documented case of protesters arming themselves and fighting back against Syrian troops. It was also one of the first occasions that large numbers of Syrians were forced to flee to a neighboring country. At the time, the Turkish government had not yet endorsed the Syrian opposition; it had spent the previous decade building economic and political ties with the Assad regime and still hoped for a negotiated solution to the uprising. But Turkey is a Sunni country whose current leadership has Islamist sympathies. Jisr al-Shughour was a Sunni town with a history of Islamist activism and violent repression by Syria’s ruling Baath regime, which is dominated by the Alawite sect. The refugees who left for Turkey soon became the first links in a crucial supply chain for the…
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The authors’ reporting for this article in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.